Lethal Love by LT


Chapter Fifteen

It seemed to Chris that Nathan was taking forever to remove the knife from Buck's side. Slowly, slowly, the healer slid the long thin blade out of the deep hole it had made in the flesh and muscle. Blood gushed more and more with every inch removed. Nathan had Riley standing beside Buck, putting pressure around the wound to try to prevent as much blood loss as possible. Chris stood by Buck's shoulder, his hand gripping the filthy clothing of his oldest friend. With one last pull, the knife was out of the body and Nathan tossed it into a porcelain pan on the table beside him. Nathan hurriedly worked to change the blood soaked bandage that now covered the wound.

"Might be a problem," Riley said quietly, fearing the man in black by the injured man's head.

Nathan finished tying off the bandage and turned to the skinny white man who was assisting him. "What problem?"

Riley held up the knife that had done so much damage. The tip, about three quarters of an inch, was missing. "Probably broke off when it hit his ribs. Probably be the death of 'im."

Chris's face went pale as he turned to the healer that had saved every one of their lives in the past eighteen months. Would this be the one time that Nathan couldn't produce a miracle? "Nathan?"

Jackson reached out and took the knife from Riley's hand. He held it as if it were a viper, ready to strike. The knife was about six inches long with the tip missing. The blade was thin and razor sharp. It was an old knife and someone had taken a lot of time and care to make sure the blade would slide into a body with ease. Nathan felt a shiver go up his spine. Pulling his eyes from the offensive object, he met the glare of Chris Larabee. "He... he's gonna need a real doctor. I ... he... there's probably a lot of bleeding goin' on inside and with the tip still in there. Chris, we got to get him outta here. He needs a doctor!"

Chris nodded. Running a hand over Buck's hair, the gunfighter whispered to one of the best men he had ever known, "Please, Buck, hold on, just hold on." He straightened and walked away from the bed and the dying man.

Chris made his way to the office of the warden and without knocking, he stormed inside. Caught by surprise, David and James Collins stared up at the irate blonde, their mouths hanging open. "I'm taking him outta here! You want to stop me?" Chris glared, wanting them to object. He needed to vent his rage and these two were as good a target as any right now.

The warden made the mistake of answering the enraged gunman. "You're not taking him anywhere, Mr. Larabee! He's a convicted murderer."

The leader of the Magnificent Seven took a step and then another, coming within striking distance of the dreaded warden. His right hand clenched into a tight fist, ready to take the shot at the man's jaw. David, backing up a step, found his back against the wall. The two powerful men glared silently, each wanting the other to make the first move.

Instead, the guard inserted himself between the two, holding up both hands in a gesture of peace. "This won't solve anything. It'll only make it worse on Wilmington and you don't want that." Taking his eyes off the gunfighter, he turned to face his brother. "We screwed up, David. We've got to try to make this right."

David took a deep breath, the adrenalin still pumping through his body. His glare was almost as intimidating as Larabee's. The two opponents stood their ground, neither willing to back down from their position.

"David, he's not safe here. They will kill him, somehow. You know as well as I do that Coots wasn't the one who wanted Buck dead. My guess is Teeters but I can't prove it and I have no idea why. However, I do know that as long as Buck Wilmington is inside these walls, his life is in jeopardy. Now, what are we going to do about it?"

The warden finally released his gaze from the New Mexican lawman. Slowly, he moved away from Larabee and sat at his desk, grabbing a pen. "I can't just release him. I don't have the authority. I do have the authority to relocate the prisoner, however, as long as he stays in the custody of the State of Colorado. James, are you willing to take personal guardianship of the prisoner?"

James nodded and then turned to Larabee. "And I will be in charge of the prisoner, Mr. Larabee. There will be nobody else trying to change that, do you understand?" His face was hard, his tone stern, and Chris was willing to abide with the decision.

"He needs a doctor. Nathan says he's bleeding inside and a piece of the knife is still in him. I would trust Nathan to operate and remove the tip of the knife but he doesn't trust himself. We're going to have to move him soon."

The guard shook his head. "We can't go until dark. Teeters will see us go and set up some sort of ambush. This has to be between the three of us, not even Mr. Jackson can know. Stuff like this runs like a wildfire through the prison. It'll be dark in a couple of hours, can he wait that long?"

The guard was right. They didn't have enough information yet and whoever had tried to have Buck killed inside would have a better chance on the outside. They had to wait. "I don't know. I just hope he makes it that long. Why don't you tell me about Teeters and what you know he's been up to."

Chapter Sixteen

Like a bat out of hell, Oliver Dancy ran across the street to the sheriff's office. He had a telegram clenched tightly in his fist. He slammed open the door and came to a swift stop. Gasping for air, he stared at the sheriff. "Where's Ace? I... He's got a real important telegram here."

Slim stood up and, taking his time, made his way to stand in front of the weasely little telegraph operator. He scowled at Oliver and then, deliberately, he held out his hand. "I'll take the telegram for my deputy, Dancy. He ain't here right now but I'll see he gets it as soon as possible."

Sweating profusely, Oliver pulled his hand swiftly behind his back. "This is personal, not somethin' you'd be interested in, Sheriff. I'll just go check for him at the saloon." He started to back out of the room but a quick movement stopped him. Without warning, he found himself facing the barrel of a gun.

"Oliver, I think it best you give me that telegram. Ace will get it, I promise. Now, hand it over." Once again, he held out his hand. The telegraph operator hesitated and Slim cocked his pistol. Slim knew that Dancy and his deputy were tight. Many an evening, he had seen the two of them drinking together in the saloon. Dancy would be counting on Ace to deal with him. Forcing his hand, Slim understood he had just set in motion a confrontation with McCabe. Instinctively, the sheriff knew that only something illegal could have made Oliver Dancy come running.

Something had come over the sheriff since Larabee and his men had shown up in town. Slim wasn't the same nobody he had been for a year or better now. Suddenly, he had backbone. With great trepidation, Oliver handed the telegram to Slim. Slim tucked the flimsy paper into his vest pocket. "Now get!"

The little man ran back out of the jail. Slim opened the telegram. It was from Canon City, from someone named Caleb. He read it twice and then tucked it away in his vest pocket. Finally, he had something to sink his teeth into. He rushed out of the jail and headed for the hotel. He needed to pass on the contents of the telegram to the men from Four Corners.

As he made his way across the street, a shot rang out. Slim felt the bullet enter his back, the pain instantaneous. His legs gave out and he fell, face down in the dirt. The townspeople fled the scene, not knowing who had fired the shot or where it came from.

Vin and JD were down the street at the livery. Both of them ran towards the scene of the shooting, only to get there after Ace McCabe. The deputy had already turned the sheriff over, his hands checking his boss's pockets for the incriminating piece of paper. He turned his head, his hands stopping their search when Vin and JD approached.

"We never had any trouble in this town until you gunfighters started showing up. I 'spect you had something to do with this shooting, didn't ya?" His hand went to his sidearm.

Vin already had his mare's leg in his hands, JD ready with his twin pistols. Neither said a word. The one man who was willing to help them lay bleeding in the middle of the street. The perpetrator was now in charge.

Sliding his weapon back into its holster, Vin moved to Slim's head. "JD, grab his feet. Let's get Slim over to Doc Anders." Turning his head towards the deputy, Vin growled, "You won't get away with any of it."

Lifting the sheriff, the two regulators from New Mexico hurried down the street to the doctor's office with their new ally. Dr. Anders had heard the gunshot and was at the door when they came up the steps. He ushered the two young men inside where they laid the wounded man on the examination table. They stood back as the doctor began his treatment of his friend.

"He gonna make it, Doc?" JD felt as if Buck's life was slipping through his hands. Every time they seemed to be making progress, something happened to stop them in their tracks. He was just starting to gain some respect for the tall, slender, sheriff. All he could do now was pray the doctor could save Slim's life.

"Don't know yet. Would you two mind going out to the parlor? I'll let you know when I know, okay?" The doctor's hands were moving efficiently over the wound. Vin knew the sheriff was in good hands. He pulled JD out of the room and down the hall to the front parlor. There they sat, waiting.

Chapter Seventeen

Standish sat with his back to the wall; his hands shuffled the cards without conscious thought. He studied the men that sat with him at the table. Two were ranchers, men with leathered skin and a lot of savvy. They didn't have a lot of money though and, if he could, Ezra would make sure they kept most of it. The third man was the owner of the biggest mercantile in Denver. He was sharp, a real businessman. However, he didn't know how to keep a straight face. The gambler had no problem taking all the money this man had with him. The last man was a salesman. He was cocky and getting drunker by the minute. This was the man that Ezra had to watch. He smiled to himself as the thought struck him. 'He looks like Buck. Probably has his temperament too.' No one seemed to be backing him though and thus the temper could get out of hand. The smile disappeared from Ezra face as he thought of the ladies man. 'Is that why Buck was in prison now? If one of us had gone with him, if one of us had been there to calm him down, watch his back, would he still be with them today? We failed the man that was always there for us, especially JD, Chris, and me.' He dealt the cards and tried to regain his concentration. It wasn't an easy thing to do, considering the obstacles facing the six of them.

"Darling! What are you doing in Denver? Oh, Ezra, please tell me you have left that dirty, little town for good! Tell me you have finally come to your senses!" Maude Standish was standing behind the mercantile owner, her hand on the man's shoulder.

'Shit!!!' Ezra looked up from his hand and forced a smile to his lips. "Mother, how wonderful to see you. I had no idea you were in town." Glancing at his cards, he threw them in. "Gentlemen, I am going to take a brief recess from your company. Mother, shall we proceed to some place quiet where we can reminisce." He gathered in his money and stood, tipping his hat to the other players. He made his way around to where his mother stood.

Leaning forward, Maude whispered in the ear of the businessman, "Delbert, dear, I shall return shortly. I haven't seen my darling boy in ages."

Delbert patted her gloved hand, his mind already back to the poker game. Ezra took his mother by the arm and led her outside. They walked in silence down the street to a small, yet elegant, restaurant. Maude gave her son a worried glance, but said nothing until the waiter had their order for coffee and had left.

"Ezra, why are you here? Have you truly left that horrid berg and those repulsive men you called friends?" She rested her right hand on her son's arm, her smiling face close to his. She so wanted her son to be back where he belonged. She hadn't raised her boy to be some sort of lawman in a filthy little town in the middle of nowhere, with no hope of gaining his fortune. Maude Standish moved in the best social circles; well, at least she did until they caught on to her schemes. However, whatever town she went to, she was never tied to a paltry job! She actually wanted the very best for her son. She just didn't see that in Four Corners.

Ezra held his anger inside and, smiling mirthlessly, he answered, "No, Mother, I have not relinquished my position nor have I abandoned my friends. Mr. Sanchez and I are here on a mission of great importance."

Disappointed, Maude caught the name Ezra had thrown out. "Josiah is here with you?"

"Yes, Mother, Mr. Sanchez has accompanied me to Denver. Now, may I inquire as to your plans here in the mile high city? I sincerely hope you are not nearing the grand finale of your scam."

"Now, Ezra, why would you assume that I am here in this august city to swindle someone? Can't a woman simply be enjoying the companionship of a man? Mr. Delbert Cavanaugh is too astute a businessman for me to try anything. He is very rich, he treats me extremely well, and I am enjoying his company." She smiled up at the young man who set the tea in front of her. "This is one of the few places in this barbaric land that has any culture. I often come here just to relax and enjoy my well-earned monetary gains."

Ezra studied his mother's face, her demeanor. He almost believed her. "So, you aren't about to have the whole town coming down around your head?"


Sighing, Ezra relaxed slightly for the first time in almost two weeks. He sipped his tea and genuinely smiled at his mother. He couldn't remember the last time he had been comfortable in Maude's presence. During most of their encounters, he was busy trying to figure out her scheme and how it was going to affect him.

"So, Darling, why are you here with Mr. Sanchez? You said it was important so I would venture a guess that your journey here has something to do with one or more of the other five ruffians you associate with, against your mother's poignant advice."

Ezra hesitated. They certainly didn't need Maude to get involved in Buck's problems. Yet, he didn't see how she could harm the ladies man anymore than he'd already been harmed. "Buck, Mr. Wilmington, has found himself in an extremely serious situation. He's been convicted of murder and battery and we've come to see if we can get an appointment with the governor. It is possible that the governor can grant a new trial or perhaps a pardon. We are willing to try just about anything at this point, Mother."

Maude actually appeared shocked. She would have expected a homicide out of Mr. Larabee or possibly Mr. Tanner, but not Mr. Wilmington. He was such a jovial, trivial man. Of course, she had only met him a couple of times and had relatively little contact with him. "Ezra, if he was found guilty, why then, he must be guilty! Surely you have more productive ventures to spend your time and resources on than a lost cause."

The Southerner stood abruptly, the anger clearly visible on his face. "I will not sit here and listen to you berate my companions any more this evening. Good night, Mother." He almost spat the last sentence at her. He took a step away from the table but stopped when she grabbed at the material of his coat. Irately, he looked back at her.

"I'm sorry, Darling. Please, sit back down and tell me about it. Perhaps I can be of assistance." She pleaded with him.

Ezra couldn't remember the last time Maude had apologized to him. She rarely pleaded for anything. Begrudgingly, he sat back down. "I don't know how you could possibly be of assistance, Mother."

"I know the governor personally, dear. Now, tell me about Mr. Wilmington's plight."

Grinning to himself, Ezra said, "I should have known you would associate with people in the top echelon of society. Approximately one month ago, Buck went in search of the woman he called 'the love of his life'. He had met the lovely young lady when she was working for the territorial governor and they came to Four Corners on a campaign for statehood. She left shortly after they became betrothed. He received several letters from her and eventually he found it necessary to pursue her to Colorado."

"I don't mean to interrupt your story, dear, but what was the young lady's name?" Maude looked genuinely interested.

"Louisa Perkins. Did you know her?" Suddenly, Ezra saw a ray of hope.

"Yes, Ezra, I met her several times. William carried her on his arm like a corsage. He was enamored with the woman, but I don't believe she felt the same way about him. You could tell she was fascinated with the political mechanisms and she was captivated by William's persona. I had the feeling she would do just about anything to achieve his goals but, she didn't love him. I can see where Mr. Wilmington would have been enchanted with the exquisite Miss Perkins. She was quite a beauty."

"Yes, she was. Buck apparently encountered Miss Perkins and Mr. Wallace in a small town called Desperate. What actually transpired after their reunion, we do not know, as Mr. Wilmington did not testify at his own trial. Mr. Wallace, his henchman, and a corrupt deputy did, however, and the twelve jurors rapidly found him guilty of murdering Miss Perkins and battering Mr. Wallace. I realize you are not that well acquainted with Mr. Wilmington, Mother, but he cherishes women, all women. I do not believe him capable of hurting even one, let alone commit homicide on the woman he professed to love."

"Well, if your friend ran into William along with Miss Perkins, then he would have had a fight on his hands. William is a vile man despite what others might say. He would do just about anything to win, including murder. He wanted to be governor, but even more than that, he wanted Louisa. His wife is institutionalized, not a fact that is widely known. Actually, I am amazed that the woman is still among the living, given as how much William wanted the lovely Louisa to be his first lady. If Miss Perkins was at all tempted to return with Mr. Wilmington, William would have resorted to violence."

Ezra couldn't believe his ears. His mother was aiding him and the others in ways he could never have discovered for himself. He flung his arms around his mother and kissed her soundly on the cheek. "Thank you, Mother, thank you. This could be the key to being granted a new trial. Now, one more thing, can you get Josiah and myself an appointment with the governor?"

Maude beamed at the pleased young man sitting with her. She hadn't seen her son this happy in a long, long, time. " I will do my best, Darling."

Chapter Eighteen

When night had fully fallen, four men quietly made their way through the somber prison. Chris and Nathan carried the litter bearing Buck and followed James Collins through a back hallway, downstairs to an outside door. The guard opened it and allowed the others to pass. Outside the door stood a team of horses and a wagon loaded with straw and blankets. They gently loaded the scoundrel into the bed as James brought up Chris and Nathan's horses. He tied them to the back of the wagon as the two regulators made themselves comfortable on either side of the convict.

"This is my own wagon. Hopefully, Teeters and Garibaldi don't know we're leavin'. We need as much head start as we can get. Are you ready?" James, crawling up to the seat, gathered the reins into his hands.

"Ready. Please, as careful as you can, Mr. Collins," Nathan replied. His patient had yet to regain consciousness and he was afraid the wound would start bleeding again.

"Do my best in the dark, Mr. Jackson. By the way, my name's James, since we're gonna be ridin' together for awhile." He lifted the reins and snapped them down over the horses' rumps. James drove as carefully as possible but every now and then, he hit a large rock or big pothole.

It was after one such jolt that Chris heard the moan. Leaning over his old friend's head, he softly asked, "Buck, can you hear me?"

Another moan answered the gunfighter. Bit by bit, a blue eye opened and slowly focused on a face he knew better than his own. The words that came from Buck's mouth surprised both Chris and Nathan. "Noooo, why Chris? No, not JD!" He tried to pull himself into a sitting position but fell back with a moan of pain. He tugged on Chris' sleeve, holding the gunfighter's attention.

"Buck, easy, don't move. You'll start the bleedin' all over. Lay still, just lay still." Nathan tried to calm the big man but Buck's attention was solely on Chris and no other voice would get through. "Chris, talk to him. Get him to calm down. I don't know what's goin' through his mind but he's upset. Try Chris."

Chris acknowledged the black healer and put his hand on Buck's forehead. "Hey, Pard, it's just me and Nathan. Nothing to worry about, okay. Just calm down and talk to me. Shhhhh, calm down. That's it, Buck, lay back. That's it, shhhh."

"Why....why'd ya.. do it, Chris?" The burst of energy was gone. He sank into the straw, his body too exhausted to move. His eye remained on Chris, imploring him to answer the perplexing question.

"Why did I do what, Buck? I don't understand." Chris spoke quietly and calmly, trying to keep his tall friend from further upset.

The scoundrel tried one more time. "The prison.... Not worth ..."

Finally it dawned on Nathan. "He thinks we broke him out of prison, Chris. He believes we're all in trouble now because of him. He doesn't think he's worth it."

"Ah shit," Chris now understood. "Look at me, Buck. Listen to me, we didn't break you out, nothing illegal, I swear. We're taking you to a doctor, Pard. The guard, Collins, is driving the wagon. Nobody's in trouble but you. You were knifed by one of the other inmates and you're hurt bad, real bad. So, you just lay still and let Nathan help you, okay."

It appeared that Buck worked out what his old friend had said for he settled back and fell into a deep sleep. He had started the wound bleeding again but not severely. Nathan held a bandage tight against the wound and prayed they would make it to Collins' home before it was too late.

Shortly afterwards, James turned the team onto a private road. He pulled the horses to a stop in front of a lovely whitewashed, two- story, house. Surrounding the house were the normal farm buildings, a barn, chicken coop, outhouse, and laundry shed. The three men cautiously lifted the injured man and carried him up the stairs that led to the front door. A petite brunette came out on the porch, clutching a wool shawl around her.

"Down the hall, gentlemen, a bed is ready for him. James, Günter left about an hour ago. He should be back anytime with Dr. Harrison. I took Elaine and Benjamin to stay with Helen. Do you think there might be problems?" She stepped aside and then followed James and the other two as they carried the pale prisoner to the end of the hallway and into a cheery yellow room where they laid him on the freshly made bed.

"Colleen, this is Chris Larabee and Nathan Jackson. Gentlemen, this is my wife, Colleen. We could use some coffee, darling. And maybe some of your cobbler if there's any left." He placed a quick kiss on her cheek and then whispered, "I certainly hope there's no trouble. Just in case, why don't you go join the children at David's house."

The pretty young woman smiled at her imposing husband and shook her head no. "I'll get that coffee. Did you eat anything?"

James smiled at his determined wife. "No. I doubt if the others did either."

"I'll get you all something warm and filling." With that she moved into the kitchen.


A short time later, all three men sat, sated, in the parlor, awaiting the doctor. A fever had seized the scoundrel during the trip from the prison. Mrs. Collins, being the caring person that she was, was sitting in the bedroom with Buck, wiping his face down with cold water, leaving the men to make their plans. Sitting pensively, Nathan knew the worst would probably come about but his heart still held hope that the doctor could save his friend. Chris was worried and furious, his head held in his hands, exhaustion clear on his face. He didn't want to think about anything but the guilty person that had let an innocent man go to prison for a murder he had committed. No matter what happened to Buck in the next couple of days, Chris was determined to find the guilty party.

James watched out the window. The home owner had suggested they bring Buck to his farm, but now he wasn't so sure about the decision. His wife refused to leave. James should have known that would be her reaction. He believed in the innocence of Buck Wilmington but he loved his wife and his home. Searching his mind and soul, he tried to think of somewhere else they could have taken the injured man. Coming up empty, he shifted in his seat and studied the two men in the parlor with him. An aura of self-sufficiency emanated from each of them. No matter what the odds, they would protect their helpless friend. He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. No matter what, these men would fight beside him to defend his home, his wife and him.

A noise out in the yard brought his attention back to the window. His worker, Gunter, was back and with him was the doctor from Canon City. Dr. Harrison was a young man, just out of his internship in St. Louis. James liked and respected the young man although a lot of the townspeople didn't. His ideas were a little too radical for most of the population.

"The doctor is here. Nathan, he's young but he's good. He helped my wife deliver our daughter when there were complications. I'm sure he'll be able to help Buck." James tried to smile but it didn't quite hide his apprehension.

Nathan saw the fear in his host's eyes and tried to reassure him. "Teeters and his men are probably not even aware that Buck's gone yet. I'll bet that tonight is gonna be real peaceful." He stood and walked past the prison guard. As he did so, he placed his hand on the young man's shoulder in a show of confidence. "I'm gonna go help the doctor." and he went to meet the physician at the front door.

Chapter Nineteen

The morning was quiet for such a large city. Most of the people passing by on the boardwalks were women, strolling about, picking up the supplies they would need to tend to household and family that day. Josiah watched out the window as he waited for his companion to awaken. He had left Ezra to the gaming tables last night and had gone back to the hotel after a quick stop at one of the many churches in Denver. He had sent a prayer to his God asking for the Almighty's protection for the five men that were separated from them.

He had awoken briefly when Ezra came back to the room during the early hours just before dawn. The gambler had told him of his visit with his mother and her promise to aid them in their endeavor to meet the governor. Josiah shook his head in amazement. He should have known that Maude would know the right people. She was a remarkable woman. He had never in his long lifetime met a woman like Maude Standish. Although he knew he didn't stand a chance with the beautiful blonde, he still liked to accompany her to dinner or a dance when she let him. He felt alive with her on his arm. And, although her son would probably disagree, Josiah thought Maude was a noble creature. She had taken care of her son the best she could and it was obvious that she loved him very much.

The ex-preacher sometimes wished he had money. Maybe Maude would look at him differently then and he could prove to the exceptional woman that he truly cared about her. None of the others would believe it, but he really did have strong feelings for the con woman. He knew he wasn't her cup of tea so he persevered on his memories of the way her hand felt or the kiss on his cheek that she had bestowed one night in Four Corners when he walked her back to the hotel after a long night of talking about her son. She was his Guinevere and he her King Arthur.

Josiah turned his head to see Ezra staring at him. "Time to get up and see what Maude has come up with since last night. I'll meet you downstairs."

Ezra groaned, but he swung his legs over the side of the bed, rubbing his head. He hated mornings! Yet, he knew they had to get moving and hope that his mother could do as she promised. He prayed that for once, Maude would come through for him and for Buck.

After grabbing a quick breakfast, the two men from Four Corners went to find the beguiling blonde. She was still in her room and Ezra went upstairs to fetch her. After rejoining Josiah, with a hand on each man's arm, she walked regally towards the nearest buggy for hire.

After the men had assisted her up into the buggy, she addressed the driver. "Take us to 89 Hampstead St." She settled back and informed her son that they were going to the governor's mansion. "Claudia was more than agreeable to our visiting today. She returned my note asking that we join her for luncheon. She is quite an asset to her husband and his bid to become the first elected governor of this new state. She has foresight and ambition. Besides, she and I get along like two peas in a pod if you know what I mean. Let me do the talking and I promise you, you will get to see the woman's husband by tomorrow morning."

Josiah smiled, but Ezra held a skeptical look. They could only hope that Maude would come through for them.

Upon being allowed entry to the mansion, Maude seemed to float into the front parlor. Ezra followed, his best decorum on display. The Southerner had been in lovely mansions before, but never on a mission of such importance. He could only hope that Maude realized how important the meeting with the governor could be. Ezra glanced over at his friend. It was obvious that Josiah felt out of place immediately The man had probably never seen such opulence in his life. His mouth slightly open, he was marveling at everything he saw. Ezra took hold of the ex-preacher's arm and gave him a quick grin.

A petite woman with auburn hair done in the latest style came bustling into the room. She had an air about her the left no doubt who she was. "Maude, dear, I had no idea you were in town. How marvelous to see you again." The two women kissed each other on the cheek and sent appraising glances over each other. Eventually, they both turned to the men in the room.

"Claudia Routt, this is my son, Ezra, and his traveling companion, the Reverend Josiah Sanchez. Darling, this is my dear friend, the wife of the first governor of Colorado, Claudia Routt. Her husband John, an absolutely honorable man, is in a race for the top spot in this newly formed state. Claudia and I have been friends since we met twenty years ago in New Orleans. We were just girls then, weren't we Claudia?" The two women laughed.

"This is your little boy, Maude? Oh, that can't be! You were just a little boy back then, still in knee britches." She stepped forward and kissed Ezra on the cheek. "You and Reverend Sanchez must stay for luncheon. Maude, we have so much to catch up on." Pleading with her eyes, the petite woman waited for an answer.

Maude made it clear she was checking with both of the men she was accompanying. "We would love to stay and chat, Claudia."

Two hours later, Ezra Standish and Josiah Sanchez had an appointment to see John Routt, Governor Pro Temp, the next morning.

Chapter Twenty

Vin and JD waited on the broad porch outside the doctor's office. Mrs. Black had been summoned as had Slim's children. The two regulators had no place inside although they desperately wanted to ask the man why. What had he learned that would cause someone to shoot the sheriff in the back? They had no evidence that the shooter was Ace McCabe but they knew deep down that he was guilty. Who else would do something that lowdown?

The door opened and Dr. Gil Anders walked out. The mournful look in his eyes told the two regulators what they had yet to ask. The doctor pushed his glasses up on his nose and then faced the two men. "He wants to see you two. He's not going to last long so make it quick." Vin nodded and together he and JD quietly entered the house and made their way to the exam room. Slim's eyes were closed and his wife and children were crying. JD figured they were already too late. However, as they entered the room, the older of the two children, a young man with his father's features looked up and beckoned them forward.

"He desperately wants to say something to you two. Ma, let's leave now. Let Pa finish his business with them." He gave them a forlorn look as he led his mother and sister from the room.

Vin leaned over the gray face and asked, "Sheriff, you still with us?"

Slim opened his eyes slowly. He gasped and his mouth moved but no words came out. His hand jerked and then moved towards his vest pocket. It fell back to his side before completing it journey. The dark eyes pleaded with Vin to understand. One more time, he tried to speak to the two friends of Buck Wilmington.

"Tele....gram....just....came....Ace...." he struggled to breath out the words. His eyes closed and the sheriff was gone. His last act was a heroic one as far as Vin Tanner and JD Dunne were concerned. Vin reached into the pocket Slim had been trying to reach. He pulled out the flimsy sheet of paper and handed it to JD.

JD read the sheet of paper and nodded his head. "We need to have a talk with that telegraph operator."


Ace McCabe set down the rifle he had just finished cleaning. Slim should have minded his own business, he thought while grinning. Now he would be sheriff and the whole town would be his. It wouldn't take much to blame those two gunmen for the sheriff's death. Now, Ace realized, he'd be a rich man in no time. Plus he had an ace in the hole. He recalled the day he had stepped right into a whole bunch of money and power.

Ace had been playing cards with Angus Ferguson, Candidate Wallace's muscle. The man wasn't too bright and he was lousy at playing cards. Ace had made himself a nice chunk of change during the four days they had been in town. He had just pulled in a big pot when Ferguson's boss walked in. He had inquired about Louisa, the tempting red headed assistant. Angus told him that he had seen her go into the hotel about an hour ago.

"Is that damn cowboy still hanging around?" Wallace asked, his candidate face gone, replaced with a look that even scared Ace.

Ferguson nodded and Wallace tore out of the room, fury trailing after him.

"Gotta go," Angus blurted out as he hurried to pick up his money and put his coat on.

"What's goin' on, Angus? Somethin' I ought'a know 'bout?" Ace had picked up his money also, feeling in his gut that trouble was just around the corner. Ferguson didn't answer, he left the room at the back of the saloon that Ace used for his private parties and games. McCabe followed right on his heels.

They entered the hotel together and both men rumbled up the stairs to the second floor and down the hallway to Room 8, the room that Louisa had been in. As they reached the door, they heard the sounds of a struggle going on. Bursting through the door, they saw a lanky, dark haired man with ashes all over his face pummeling William Wallace. Both McCabe and the body guard attempted to pull the ferocious man off the candidate, but his wrath was beyond anything Ace had ever seen before. Angus pulled out his gun and McCabe thought for sure he was going to shoot the man. Instead he turned it around and with his considerable strength, he brought the revolver down on the back of the stranger's head. The man crumbled to the floor.

"What on earth happened here?" the deputy demanded to know.

Ferguson helped his boss up. Wallace choked on the blood that filled his mouth from the loss of two teeth. His face, already swelling in several places, had quickly turned his cheeks and throat a purplish color. The campaigner pointed a finger at the floor by the bed.

There, lying in a mound of clothes, was Louisa Perkins. Ace moved to check on the redhead. As he got close, he could tell by her lifeless eyes that she was deceased. He turned to face Wallace.

"What happened?" he ground out. He had a thought about what truly went on just before he and Ferguson barged in. However, he wanted to hear the story Wallace would tell him.

William Wallace pulled himself up to his full six foot height, trying to regain some composure. He turned evil eyes toward the unconscious man and choked out, "He killed her. I came in and found him strangling my bride- to-be. I attacked him but he dropped her and lashed out at me. I fought back with all I had but he was like a man possessed. I even threw ash in his eyes but he kept pummeling me until you two came in."

"I want the truth, you sack of shit!"

"That is the truth! He's the killer, not me! I had no reason to do that to Louisa."

McCabe quickly sized up the tale he had been told. He could see scratches on Wallace's face and arms, not likely from a weathered cow poke. No, the unconscious man had been using his fists like hammers. Ace smiled at the gubernatorial candidate. "All right, that's the story we'll tell but, just so you know, I know you strangled her. And it's gonna cost you."

It didn't take long for the crooked deputy and the politician to come to terms.

Ace was scheming of all the things he could get his fingers into with Black gone when he noticed the two interlopers from Four Corners come out of the doctor's office. They had grim looks on their faces and the young one had a piece of paper in his hand. Son of a bitch!

Quickly making his way to the telegraph office, Ace confronted Oliver. "God damn you, Dancy. What exactly was in that telegram? Was it an answer to one of the telegrams I sent the other night?" the deputy barked at him, grabbing the much smaller man by his shirt, anger radiating down his arms and into Oliver's body."

Sobbing, Dancy nodded his head. "From Canon City. It said Wilmington had been stabbed but was still alive. And that Larabee was there already."

"Asshole! I knew that son of a bitch, cousin of mine couldn't handle things right. Fuck! Why in the hell did Black have to fold under those bastards from Four Corners. I thought I got to him in time but I guess I didn't. Too bad for you, Oliver." He threw the telegraph operator against the wall, pulling his gun when his hands were free. He aimed and fired a bullet straight through the man's head. He grabbed the oil lamp that sat on the desk and smashed it on the floor. Lighting a match, he set the building ablaze and scurried out the back door just as JD and Vin got to the front.

Chapter Twenty-One

Chris stretched taut muscles and shifted in the chair. He'd been by Buck's bedside ever since the doctor had left. Checking to make sure the blankets were still tucked in around his longtime friend, Chris noticed that Buck had more bandage than skin showing. The only part of him that wasn't swathed in white cotton was his right eye and cheek. "How in the world did you get yourself into this mess, Buck? I know you didn't kill the woman but how in the hell we're gonna prove it is beyond me!" He took the injured man's hand in his and gulped down the emotions that threatened to overwhelm him.

The doctor had worked on Buck for over four hours, setting bones and removing the piece of knife from his body. He had told them that it was now up to "the prisoner" if he was going to live. Harrison approved of Nathan's remedies for fever and he gave the black man some additional laudanum for the pain Buck would be in if he awoke. He then said his good-byes to James and Colleen before leaving. Now it was up to Buck and his friends to get him well enough to get the conviction overturned.

"Why the hell did you go runnin' off by yourself, huh? You should have at least taken JD with you. Did you really think it was gonna work out with Louisa? She wasn't good enough for you, Stud! If she couldn't see what a great catch you were, if she couldn't see spending her life with you wherever you wanted to live, well, she didn't deserve you." Chris stopped his monologue and pictured the stunning redhead that Buck had fallen madly in love with so fast and so hard. Chris could tell that she was a force to be reckoned with, a strong woman like Mary and Inez, but unlike those two, Louisa Perkins was fascinated with power. Unfortunately, Buck didn't have the slightest interest in personal power. No, his oldest and dearest friend was dedicated to making others see the worth in themselves. The two pieces didn't fit. " We're gonna take you back where you belong. Hell, Buck, the female population of Four Corners has been in mourning ever since you left town. You'll have so many nurses, you won't know who to turn to next. Dammit, Buck, even Inez misses ya." He pushed away a tear that hung on his lashes. "We all missed ya, Pard."

"Missed.... You."

Chris jumped at the whispered words and suddenly stared into a midnight blue eye. It blinked several times and then closed again.

"Buck, stay with me now! Don't you dare slip away again. You wait until Nathan's got some medicine into you." The blond held his breath until the eye fluttered open again. "Good, stay with me, Pard, I'm gonna call Nathan."

A slight nod from Buck acknowledged that he would try. Chris went to the door, calling for the healer as he went. He was quickly back by his friend's side and Buck relaxed as the familiar hand took his.


"He's not here. He's with Vin back in Desperate. The sheriff, Slim Black, he's on our side. He's helpin' the guys figure this out. Ezra and Josiah, they went to Denver to see if the governor would grant a new trial." He paused and then asked the question he had been wondering about since he had spoken with Black. "Buck, the sheriff said you never uttered a word in your own defense. That true?"

Silence hung heavy in the air. Chris was ready to ask the question again when Buck finally nodded. "Head... hurt." The injured man fought for air. After several gasps, he mumbled, "All was....spinning. My fault.."

"Don't you ever say that, Buck. You would never hurt a woman, it's not in you! Just because you showed up in Desperate don't mean you killed her! Not sure who did, but you were NOT responsible." Chris leaned over the prone body, staring his old friend right in the eye. "You got that?"

A single nod met the glare. "Wall....Wallace."

"Wallace killed Louisa? You sure?"

Pulling in a shaky breath, Buck replied, "too...late."

"Not while you're still alive. Damn, he must have paid that guard to make sure you didn't live long enough to talk to us. I promise you, Buck, he'll pay for what he did to her and to you." Just then, Nathan walked in with a big mug of his special tea. "Time for the 'cat-piss' tea. We'll talk more later, Pard."

Chapter Twenty-Two

The next morning, Ezra Standish and the Reverend Sanchez made their way through the old building the Colorado State government was using while the new capitol building was being built. They entered the front office of Governor Routt and gave their names to the male secretary that sat at a small plain wooden desk. They sat down to await their turn with the appointed governor.

Fidgeting with his string tie, Josiah sat and one more time went over the speech the two men had rehearsed. They needed Governor Routt to grant a new trial. The problem was, they had no new evidence. All they had was a gut feeling and their own indisputable knowledge that Buck Wilmington would never harm a woman. Without knowing the tall gunfighter though, it would be extremely hard to get the governor to grant a new trial.

Ezra sat silently, his mind whirling through all the questions Governor Routt would be asking. He didn't have the answers or the evidence. This meeting was a futile attempt to save a good friend and the gambler didn't want to run a risk on the life of Buck Wilmington. What could he possibly say that would sway the governor into action? Suddenly, he looked up at the big man beside him. Politics, one of the dirtiest games in the country, would be their ace in the hole. If they couldn't persuade the governor of Buck's innocence, maybe they could persuade Routt that Wallace was guilty of numerous charges, all of which would knock him out of the race for the top position in Colorado.

Ezra's face was alight with possibility. "I have a plan, Josiah. Forget all we were going to say about Mr. Wilmington. Governor Routt doesn't want to hear about Buck. He wants to hear about how he can defeat Wallace in the upcoming election! That is where we shall strike, at the soft underbelly of politics."

It took the ex-preacher only a moment to reach the same conclusion. "That's it, Ezra! Showing the governor the light at the end of the tunnel just might persuade him to look deep into Buck's conviction."

"Mr. Standish, Mr. Sanchez, Governor Routt will see you now," the secretary announced. The two men stood confidently and followed the slender man into the large plush office.

Governor Routt, a large man with a balding head, held out a hand. After shaking hands with both peacekeepers, he said, "Why don't you both have a seat and tell me what's on your minds."

Chapter Twenty-Three

Buck's fever rose through the night. Nathan and Chris took turns bathing the injured rogue with cold water. By morning, it was obvious that the big man needed the doctor again and the sooner the better. At the moment, Chris was the one who was trying his best to help his old buddy. Nathan walked into the bedroom, a cup of hot coffee in his hands.

Holding the mug out to the gunman, he quietly said, "James sent his man into town to fetch the doctor. You need to go get some sleep, Chris. You been up with him all night."

Looking the healer straight in the eye, Larabee asked, "Nathan, he told me he saw Wallace kill Louisa. That's gonna be a hard nut to crack, him bein' a candidate for governor." He ran a weary hand through his long blond hair.

Nathan took in the despair that flowed from Chris like a rain fed stream. The fact was, Nathan felt the same way. With as much conviction as he could muster he began. "Buck ain't dead yet, Chris. As long as he's breathin', we have a chance to get him home." The healer paused then smirked. " Don't count out Josiah and Ezra. I know it don't look good but, well, that gambler's slicker than a pan fish and Josiah ain't no slouch. They'll get to Routt, you just wait and see."

Chris nodded. If Josiah and Ezra could get to Routt, they stood a chance at a new trial. "I shouldn't a left JD and Vin on their own with McCabe there."

"I know Vin and JD are young but they're not reckless. They'll watch out for each other." He hesitated, looking down at Buck. "Just like you and this old fool did. Seems you two did alright."

Chris's lips turned up slightly, a flood of great memories assailing him. "He saved my life the first day I met him. Been protectin' my back ever since."

"I think we should save that story for Buck to tell when we're all back together." Nathan found himself smiling. He could just picture the two young friends riding into a dusty little burg like Four Corners and taking the ladies by storm.

"Yeah, guess we should, he tells it with a little truth mixed up in it somewhere." Chris stood and stretched. "When Gunter gets back, wake me."

Nathan slid into the vacant seat beside the bed. "I will."M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

The German lad rode into Canon City on his old grey horse, hurrying the sway-backed mare as much as he could. He made his way straight to the doctor's office. He didn't notice the burly, dark haired man, picking his teeth, across the street. The man watched the lanky lad rap on the doctor's door. Throwing his toothpick away, the man turned and hurriedly made his way back inside the restaurant.

"You were right, Caleb, Collins' boy just came for the doctor. All we gotta do is follow the doc and he'll take us right to him."

Teeters was just finishing his large breakfast. He dragged a shirt sleeve across his mouth, wiping away the greasy egg that clung to his whiskered chin. He grinned as he looked up at Bear Wohlcek. "I told ya that damn Collins had somethin' ta do with breakin' Willy out." He turned to the other two men sitting at the table with him, both trying to wolf down the rest of their food. "Get the guys together. Bear, you and me are gonna have a talk with that kraut kid." He rose and led the way across the street to Dr. Harrison's office.

Slamming the door open, Teeters and Wohlcek prodded both Gunter and the doctor into backing up against the far wall with loaded pistols. Teeters' face wore an ugly grin as he stepped up to invade Gunter's space. The young German tried to turn away from the foul breath and evil glare, but Caleb roughly grabbed his chin, forcing him to look into his eyes.

"Where ya takin' the doc, ya snivelin' kraut?" When Gunter didn't answer fast enough, Teeters increased the pressure of his hand on the boy's face. "Well?"

Tears filled Gunter's eyes and sobbing, he gave the man what he wanted to hear. "Mr. Collins, he's got guests and one's real sick."

Throwing the boy's head back against the wall, the prison guard laughed, a disturbing sound that the young doctor found extremely unsavory. As Harrison cringed, Caleb turned his evil eyes towards him. "You ain't goin' nowhere, Doc. Not if ya know what's good for ya. And keep the kraut here with ya or he ain't gonna be around for long." With that, Teeters and Wohlcek turned and left the immaculate doctor's office.

Taking a deep gulp to ease his fear, Dr. Harrison turned to the German lad. "Gunter, is there another way to get to Mr. Collins' place. I got a real bad feeling that I'm going to be needed for more than the prisoner."

The boy nodded and, after checking that Teeters and his men were gone, he led the way to go around and over the hill, leading the doctor to the rear of Collins' property.

Chapter Twenty-Four

Approaching the large prison, JD felt a cold chill, a feeling he hadn't had since the day he got home from work to find his mother had passed on. He looked up at the imposing fortress and knew that Buck was forever lost to him. He dipped his head in despair and then turned his head slightly to see how the Texan was doing, considering Vin was still facing the same kind of stone housing if found guilty.

"It's not right, Bucklin bein' in a hell hole like this," Vin muttered and JD silently agreed. The two men from Four Corners stopped and dismounted, making their way on foot to the guard shack by the iron gate.

"Somethin' I ken do for you two?" the wiry little guard asked cynically, spitting a juicy wad of tobacco out of the side of his mouth.

JD gathered his wits and stepped forward, keeping Vin from getting too close to his nightmare. "I'm JD Dunne, sheriff of Four Corners in the New Mexico territory. I came to speak to the warden."

"Four Corners, ya say. Had some of your associates by here yesterday. They already seen the Warden. Ain't nothin' more ta see." The diminutive man stood with his feet spread, his rifle clutched in both hands. He looked mighty small compared to the gates of hell that he was guarding.

"Are our friends still here?" JD was buoyed by the fact that Chris was already here.

The guard shifted slightly, remembering the cold glare the man in black had given him. "Ain't seen either of 'em today. Now git!" he ordered.

Bristling with rage at the injustice done to Buck, Vin cradled his mare's leg in the crook of his arm and stepped up to stand beside his young ally. "Get the warden for us now!" he hissed, doing an excellent version of his best friend's growl.

The guard, whose name was Melvin Comstock, tried to remain firm, but facing these two and knowing that the warden had agreed to seeing the two from New Mexico yesterday, he capitulated. "Don't try anything." With that, he was gone.

Fifteen minutes later, David Collins appeared in front of them. He was a good looking man with a powerful persona, not quite in the same league as Chris, but authoritative all the same. He dismissed the guard and went to talk privately with the two peacekeepers.

"I'm Warden Collins. Do you have anything showing who you are?"

JD pulled his coat lapel back, showing his badge to the stoic warden. Collins nodded and moved away from the gate. "All your friends left yesterday." He accentuated the all. He gave a solemn glance to Vin and then back to the youthful sheriff. "They went to stay at my brother's place. One of them needed a doctor."

Vin caught the insinuation immediately. "Serious?"

David nodded. "Afraid so. If you wait for me to get a horse, I'll take you to James' farm."

Both men from Four Corners nodded their assent.


Josiah smiled to himself. He was certain things were going their way now. The governor pro tem had sent them on their way, accompanied by his assistant. Ezra had been amazing as he laid out a way to get Routt's path to the Governor's mansion cleared. Routt had immediately assigned his aide to review the conviction of one Buck Wilmington. They had left at sunrise to get to Canon City as hastily as possible.

"Do you know how much further to Desperate, Mr. Donovon?" the big ex-preacher asked the slight blond that rode by his side. He had been anxious to get to the prison and break the good news to Buck. The easy going gunman had wormed his way into his heart and Josiah couldn't wait to see Buck's face when he told him the news. However, Standish had talked the other two into going to the scene of the crime first.

Royce Donovan rode stiffly on his rented horse. He wasn't used to traveling outside of his comfort zone. However, he had seen the look of glee on his boss's face as Routt instructed him to find any reason at all to declare Wilmington innocent. If there was any new evidence of Wallace's involvement in the murder, well, that would be better than just a new investigation.

Royce was a trim, well groomed man, his charming smile and bright blue eyes were definitely a big plus. He had numerous lady friends back in Denver. He also had a very important job and many men and women came to him for his 'assistance' in matters of the state. He was doing just fine working with John Routt.

"Not too far now. Probably half an hour." He turned his award winning smile towards Sanchez. "Sure hope you know your friend and what he's capable of. The Governor is counting on this to work for him. If not, well, you two will get a swift escort to the border, if you get my drift."

Ezra, who had been in the lead all morning, turned in the saddle and glared back at the obnoxious man. The gambler knew a fellow con man when he met one. He had been raised with such people, both male and female. He hadn't realized until last night how much he savored the open honesty of the six men he now associated with. "I assure you, Mr. Donovan, Buck Wilmington is an innocent man. You have no cause to worry on that account. Meeting Mr. Larabee is another matter, however." He grinned as he saw the snaky man flinch. He turned back around and kicked Chaucer lightly in the ribs. The horse responded by shifting into a canter.


Colleen sat with the injured man, running a cool cloth over his burning face and neck. She had no idea what crime the man was suppose to have committed, but from the support his friends were giving him and her husband's doubting his guilt, she figured she was safe with him. She could tell that, despite the cuts and bruises that decorated his face, the man was extremely handsome.

She spoke softly to the very ill man. "Wonder what kinda mess you got yourself into? My James seems to care for you and I haven't ever heard him say a good thing about the prisoners before. Oh, he feels bad for some of them, but he'd never dream of bringing them to our home! Now, here you are, along with two others who are really fighting to get you freed. You must be something to have that kind of support!"

"He is." The petite woman turned quickly to see her husband standing in the doorway. He smiled at his lovely wife and then ambled across the room to stand beside her. "You remember that dime novel about the Magnificent Seven that I read to Paul?"

Grinning, Colleen replied, "Our son loved it almost as much as you did. What does that have to do with this man?"

"He's one of them. I was just looking it over again, checking out some of the parts about him specifically. Evidently he's quite the ladies man. Nonetheless, he seems to have a good heart and it says he's very dedicated to those he cares for. Mr. Larabee has known him for a long time, says he's a good man to have at your back. I got that impression when I spent the evening talking to Buck."

The pretty blonde ran her hand softly over the peacekeeper's cheek. "Who did this to him, James?"

"Teeters. And a kid named Cooter. I had to shoot the boy, shot him dead." His hand landed on his wife's shoulder, his voice forlorn. "And I still ain't sure who's really behind all of this. I do know that I believe Buck here. He wouldn't kill a woman, even if he had to." He stopped, a thought forming in his mind. "Maybe he would, if his friends were in danger from a female, but that wasn't the case in Desperate."

Colleen placed her hand on her husband's. "I am positive that you had to shoot, James. I know that for certain. YOU wouldn't hurt anyone unless you were forced to, so don't beat yourself up over it. And I believe you when you say this man is innocent. Guess we need to get him back on his feet then." She gave her husband a smile that promised everything would turn out all right.

With a crash, a bullet shattered the glass of the window across the room. Glass shards littered the floor, even the bed where Buck fought for his life. Collins pulled his wife away from the bed and lead her out to the hallway. The battle was on.

Chapter Twenty-Five

At the sound of the first shot, the three healthy men moved into position. They had discussed how they could best defend the Collins home and had prepared their posts. Chris was at the front, near a big window in the parlor. He had his rifle and handgun, both cleaned and loaded, with extra ammunition laying beside them. Nathan was upstairs, facing forward, beside a bedroom window. He was looking down on the scene in front of the house. He wasn't as good a shot as Vin, but from the second story, he could get a good sight on most of the unwelcome guests that were now firing at he and his friends. James was upstairs, to the side of the house. It was a small window that he was looking through but he could see just fine and he could protect the occupants of the house from any enemy gunman trying to make his way around the back of the house.

Teeters had stationed his seven men around the farm house. The house stood on a small hill with the barn and other out buildings about twenty foot below. Only the two men that had taken up position in the barn loft were able to see through the windows of the white washed two story home.

Placing his men to the front and low side, Teeters had maneuvered his way around the far side, climbing the steep bank of the hill and hiding in the trees behind the house. When his men started shooting, he crept closer and closer to the house until he could stand with his back against the clapboard exterior. Cautiously, he made his way to the first window he could reach. Peeking in, he saw an empty kitchen. He pushed up on the window frame and the window crept open.


Vin and JD followed David Collins down a rutted road, moving at a leisurely pace that frustrated the hell out of JD, but he knew that their horses were spent and that they would soon be reunited with Buck, Chris and Nathan.

The warden had informed them of Buck's injuries, admitting that he was partly to blame for the knifing. James had warned him that something strange was going on with Wilmington and Teeters but since he couldn't put his finger on why the abhorrent guard was targeting that particular prisoner, David didn't give it much credence. Now, he realized that he should have listened to his brother and placed Wilmington in another section of the prison. JD had been furious and had clenched a fist, in preparation to strike out at the warden, but Vin's hand on his arm had thwarted that idea.

Vin was pissed also, but knew that they needed Collins and his brother on their side if they were going to get a new trial for Buck. The Texan was ill at ease in the presence of David Collins and wanted to keep as low a profile as he could. Vin glanced over at his companion. He saw the fear and wrath clearly on his young friend's features. He felt the same way, his good friend had been severely victimized while in prison. However, he knew that Nathan and Chris were with him, and would protect him with their lives to prevent further injury.

"Warden, are we getting close?" JD inquired of the man that rode in front. He didn't think he could take one more minute away from his mentor.

"About five minutes. Just around the corner and up the hill." He turned to face the two men from Four Corners. He quickly got the picture. Both of these men wanted to throttle him. "I'm sure James has had Dr. Harrison out to the house already. He's a very good doctor and will take good care of Mr. Wilmington."

"He better. Ain't seen many docs as good as Nathan," Vin growled.

As they rounded the corner of the road, Vin cocked his head. The sound of gunshots rang out to him and, instantly, he kicked Peso in the sides. JD was less than a second behind him and both rushed past the warden. Collins realized what the noise was and urged his horse into a full gallop, chasing after the two peacekeepers.


Nathan found himself firing almost wholly at the two men shooting at the house from the barn loft. From their angle, the two men could shoot directly into the house, through the windows. The rest of the assailants were trying to get up the hill in front of the house and Chris seemed to be doing a good job of holding them off, so the healer took aim and sent another bullet whizzing towards the most deadly enemies. Sure wish Vin was here. I ain ' t no match for him with a rifle. Give me a knife though! He squeezed the trigger again and smiled as he watched one of the men grab his leg and collapse out of sight. He couldn ' t bask in pride though because he was busy ducking as three bullets came screaming in his direction. He reloaded his rifle and tried again to make a worthwhile shot.

Chris took his time, shooting only when he saw a head pop up. He didn ' t want to waste ammunition and he had counted four men attempting a frontal attack. He was confident that Nathan was taking care of the men in the loft, but they sure were annoying. A movement caught his eye and he concentrated on that spot. There it was again and Chris fired. He heard a scream echo over the sound of gunfire. He pulled back, figuring that his buddies would be trying to rescue the injured man, giving him time to reload. As he was sticking bullets into the empty chambers, he heard gunfire coming from the side. Hoping that the barrage fire was coming from James and not those assaulting him, he returned to his job of keeping the three in front of him pinned down.

The prison guard felt useless at the side of the house. He hadn ' t fired a shot off yet but he could tell both men from New Mexico were occupied, attempting to thwart the attack. God, I hope Colleen is safe, that she stayed put in the hallway between the bedrooms, but if I know her at all, she ' s trying to help somewhere. A flash of blue caught his attention and thoughts of his loving, stubborn wife left him. His eyes peeled, waiting for the man to show himself again, he held the rifle as steady as he could. James had fought in the war but he been injured early on and ended up pushing papers for most of the conflict. He now worked, thanks to his brother, with prisoners, most of whom were no strangers to violence. However, his experience at the penitentiary had been pretty calm until yesterday. He surprised himself when he had reacted so quickly and shot the young lad that had stabbed Wilmington. James had felt remorse seconds after he fired his gun, but he wasn't sorry he had fired. He only felt bad that Cooter had been forced to lose his life for one of the bullies in the prison. There it was again and he pulled the trigger, his shot going astray but the target withdrew. Suddenly, two others tried to maneuver around the side. This time, James didn ' t have time to wait and become stiff. This time, James fired on target and the front assailant fell. He discharged his rifle again and the second man went down, only to crawl his way back to shelter. How many more can there be?


Vin leapt off his pony before the beast came to a stop. Mere seconds later, JD was away from his horse, running to join him. The Texan looked back and saw David pulling back the reins of his mount, the gelding sliding to a halt. The warden didn ' t move as quickly as the young sheriff but he got to their position expeditiously. Vin turned his attention back to the farmyard and the battle that was taking place there.

"The other side and the back are hard to get to from out front. Lots of woods and a pretty steep climb," David informed the man who seemed to take charge automatically.

The long haired man nodded. "JD, move around to the right and see if you can get into the barn from the back. The guy up there has a good angle into the house." JD nodded, then took off towards his target. "Warden, see that chicken coop, ain ' t nobody expectin ' us so you should be able to get through there and come up behind those two on the side. I ' m gonna climb up behind the house, make sure none of ' em are sneakin ' in the back."

Collins grimaced. He could agree with the sound strategy but he was disgusted at the thought of crawling through the henhouse. He drew in a deep breath and moved ahead. He hadn ' t fired a gun since the end of the war but he was confident in his aim and mission.

Vin watched the man in the black suit move the way he had directed, then he began his climb up the hill. Lithely, he clambered up the rocky precipice. Reaching the top, he checked his rifle quickly, next his handgun. Satisfied, he took off, keeping low. He reached the rear of the house without contacting the enemy. Upon arriving, he reached for the door handle. The Texan stopped immediately when he saw the window to the far right was open!

Chapter Twenty-Six

Colleen Collins had stayed in the hallway for all of about ten seconds after her husband sat her down and demanded that she stay put until he came for her. She had eased her way into the bedroom where the injured convict lay on the glass laden bed. Staying low, she moved to the side of the bed and slowly pulled the large man towards her. Being sure to keep the bed between herself and the broken window, she dragged the cumbersome man off the mattress and onto the floor. She flinched when she heard the body thud as it hit the hard wood. Chastising herself for not thinking of the pillows sooner, the pretty blonde snuck a glance and quickly gathered as many of the pillows off the bed. She strained under the man's weight, nevertheless she got his head and shoulders off the floor. Holding the brunette against her shoulder, she eased the feather pillows underneath his body to cushion him.

"I think our guys are winning but I don't want to take a chance with you. James thinks you're worth taking a risk on, so I reckon I should try to protect you from those stray bullets. You rest easy now, I'll take care of you." She checked the wound in his side, finding that it had, indeed, begun to bleed again. Without any fresh bandaging, she decided to tear up the sheet that now hung off the side of the bed.

Glass broke anew, the bullet striking the wall above her head. Colleen knew she had never been this scared in her life and, as she hugged Buck close beneath her, she thought of her blessed children and her parents who were still in Ireland.

The door suddenly crashed against the wall, startling Colleen. She screamed when she realized that she didn't know the man that stood in the doorway. He was a big man, his face ugly with the hate that etched his features. And then, he smiled evilly.

"Now, Mrs. Collins, I ain't here ta hurt you! Just got me a job ta do. Move away from him and ya just might live to see those kids of yours again," Teeters cajoled the woman that blocked his aim. When she didn't move away, he got furious. He stomped to where the woman cringed above her charge, took hold of her arm, and jerked her roughly off the man he was intent on killing.

Colleen didn't want to die but she had undertaken the task of keeping the handsome man safe throughout the gun battle. As rapidly as possible, she crawled her way back to Buck. "Don't hurt him. He hasn't done anything to you! Go away!" she screamed at the brutal prison guard.

"I'll shoot you too, woman, don't think I won't!" Once again he seized her by the arm. This time, however, he threw her against the far wall. Broken glass below the shattered window sliced her hands and knees as she once again tried to get between the prisoner and the guard.

The crack of a shot rang out, deafening her with its echoing nearness. She gasped, believing the shot to be the one that murdered the prisoner her husband was trying to aid. Looking up, she saw the rancorous guard stumble back and slide bonelessly to the floor, revealing a man in a hide coat standing in the doorway. Holding a sawed-off rifle in his hands, the newcomer ignored Teeters and made his way directly to Wilmington. After checking to make sure the mustached man was still breathing, he turned his head towards the cringing woman.

"You all right, ma'am?" he asked the frightened woman.

Colleen shook her head no. "Who are you?" she sniffled as the tears flowed down her cheeks.

"I'm a friend of Buck's. Name's Vin Tanner. Could you stay with Buck 'til I get back?" He didn't bother with her answer, he was already heading out the door.

Colleen, aware that bullets were still whizzing full force at her home, stayed low as she made her way around Teeters' body. When she arrived back by Buck, Colleen sat down heavily beside him. Taking his hand, she declared, "I think the cavalry just arrived."


Nathan ducked once again as the man in the loft fired in his direction. Quickly, he loaded the last of his ammunition into his rifle. Taking a deep breath, he moved in front of the window and waited for the opportunity to take the man out. A shot rang out. The healer frowned, the report of the rifle slightly off from the one that had been fired consistently in his direction. Nathan took a chance and raised his head higher in the opening. No killer projectile came zooming in towards him. He strained his eyes, trying to see further into the darkness of the loft. Seeing a bowler hat on a short man, Nathan smiled and breathed a sigh of relief.

"JD?" he called out loudly. The young man in the loft stepped forward and waved at the black man. Nathan waved back. The healer gathered his weapons and scurried down the stairs to help out the leader of the Seven.

Chris turned his head as Nathan came charging down the stairs. He didn't understand why, but he was glad to see the healer headed his way. He turned back to the window, certain in the knowledge that the black man would continue fighting beside him. He fired once again at the opposition, but the target ducked down before Chris's bullet struck.

Out of the corner of his eye, Chris spotted a figure moving in the wrong direction. A dark haired man was maneuvering himself to arrive at a point behind the enemy. Chris shifted slightly, allowing a better view of the man sneaking up from the henhouse. He looked familiar, a big dark haired man in a suit.

"Shit, what's he doing here? Probably going to get himself killed, ruining Buck's chance of gettin' out of this mess," Chris fumed, mostly to himself. However, Nathan heard and made his way over to Larabee.

"Who'd ya see?"

"That damn warden, Collins."

Nathan smiled, hearing the contempt in his leader voice. "Guess ya wouldn't be interested in seeing JD or Vin then either, huh?" He broke into a full laugh when Chris's head spun around, astonishment on his face. "Saw JD take out the second guy up in the loft. 'Magine Vin's around here somewhere."

Shots rang out and both peacekeepers turned back to the action outside. They witnessed the end of the battle, David Collins standing up at the feet of the last of the attackers. The warden slid his pistol back into his holster and walked toward the house. He saw his smiling brother in the side window, and then, James was gone. David felt a weight lift from his shoulders. James had been right. Teeters and his henchmen had been after Wilmington all along.

Chris stood, stretching tense muscles. He nodded at the slim Texan, who had just entered the front room. Hearing a stomping of feet on the front porch, the blond glanced towards the doorway and saw JD come into the house.

"Where's Teeters?" James inquired as he joined all the others. All of them knew that the brutish guard was the one responsible for all of the killing.

"Never laid eyes on him," Nathan offered. He had been watching for the ring leader but hadn't spotted him from his second story lookout.

As Chris was about to charge off, rage in his eye, Vin reached out and took hold of the blond's arm. "Ya lookin' fer a ugly brute with a hole in his chest?"

Slowly, Chris nodded. "Where?"

"Back by Bucklin. A purty little lady's taken real good care of our pard. Ain't it just like that scoundrel, in prison and still gettin' the girl." Vin smiled and three others joined him in a laugh. James, however, didn't find the humor in the statement. He raced back to the bedroom to check on his wife.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

"Honey, are you all right?" James asked anxiously. He could see blood running down both of his wife's legs as she protectively sat on the floor beside Wilmington. She nodded her head. Nevertheless, tears spilled down her cheeks and she held her arms out for her husband like a child who needed a hug.

James swiftly made his way to her side. He noted the numerous cuts on her knees and hands, grabbing some of the torn sheet to wrap around them. After binding her wounds, he gathered her up in his arms. He held her close as he whisked her out of the blood spattered room. Up the stairs they went, straight into their bedroom, away from the violence and bloodshed.

Chris lead the others into the room that James had just vacated. He knelt down beside his old friend, making sure he hadn't been hurt again. He watched as Vin and Nathan cleared the glass off of the bed and JD made sure Teeters was dead. Taking Buck's shoulders, he waited until Nathan had a grip on the scoundrel's legs. Together, they gently lifted the injured man back onto the bed. JD took Buck's hand in his, holding on tightly as Nathan examined the infected wound.

"He'll be alright, won't he, Nathan?" JD inquired, fear saturating his voice.

Nathan stood up from his examination, sighing. The young man deserved the truth. "He's in a bad way, JD. We need to get the doctor here as soon as possible."

Hearing his cue, Vin moved toward the door. "Be back as soon as I can." He was gone seconds later.

Larabee gazed down wearily at his old partner. They had been friends for a long time and Chris didn't want to come to grips with losing the big galoot. As Nathan moved away from Buck's side, the man in black took his place. Toeing a chair over to his side of the bed, he sat and reached out a hand to comfort the man who had stayed by his side through the darkest time of his life. He swept his palm over Buck's forehead and up into his hair, sensing the fever that threatened his friend's life. Glancing at JD, he attempted to distract the lad. "How'd you come to rescue us? Thought you were in Desperate still?"

JD eased himself up from his seat and pulled out a piece of yellow paper. "Sheriff Black died for this. Might help explain some of what's been goin' on." He handed the telegram to his leader.

Prisoner stabbed but alive Stop Larabee here Stop Advise what to do


Chris read the handwriting and huffed out a disgusted breath. "You say Black got killed for this?" The Easterner nodded sadly. "Well, we know who was pulling Teeters strings. We need to get back to Desperate before anyone can send him word that his man didn't get the job done."

"It would be hard seeing that Ace burned up the telegraph office. Chris, I want to stay here with Buck. He needs me."

"Yeah, he does. I think Vin and I can handle that piece of shit deputy. If Ezra and Josiah get back here, tell 'em to come lend us a hand. We need to take McCabe alive and it ain't gonna be easy, seeing as how much I want to kill the bastard. Figure Vin just might feel the same way." Getting up slowly, Chris squeezed Buck's shoulder. "We'll get you out of this, you big jerk. And when we do, I'm gonna kill you for pullin' this foolish stunt."


Heading for the barn, Chris stopped instantly as he heard horses coming his way. Hand on his six shooter, he stood tall and awaited any fool who showed. He was surprised to see the three men ride who rode up to him. "That was quick!"

Vin grinned as he dismounted. "Met up with these two just over the crest of the hill. Doc here figured he was gonna be needed."

Gunter and Doctor Harrison swung down from their saddles. The German lad took the reins of all three horses, leading them to the corral. The doctor grabbed his bag and made his way toward David Collins who was standing guard over three of the aggressors. Chris stopped the doctor with a harsh, "Inside, Doctor!"

Harrison looked back at Larabee. Witnessing the infamous glare aimed at him, the doctor turned and made his way to the house.

Chris turned back to Vin. "Saddle Nathan's horse. He's fresh. We need to ride back to Desperate and take a piece of hide outta McCabe." The two men headed to the barn.

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Royce Donovon whined once again about how much his ass hurt and how hungry he was and how tired he was and on and on and on. Ezra was so freakin' tired of the man and his constant complaining, he was ready to give up on the outrageous plan to save Buck.

"Mr. Donovon, if you open your mouth one more time, I will shoot you right out of your saddle. That will solve most of your troubles and all of mine!" The gambler drew his side arm and began to aim at the irritating aide. A heavy hand fell on his arm before he could pull the trigger. Josiah shook his head, his eyes warning the smaller man. Ezra, exasperated, slide his sidearm slickly back into his holster. "You better be worth it."

Josiah snickered at his companion's display of ire. Did the gambler recognize the similarities between Donovon and himself? When Ezra looked his way, he got his answer. Obviously not! The ex- preacher just shook his head. "You sure we should go back to Desperate? I still think we should try to hook up with Larabee at the prison."

"Other than getting Mr. Wilmington's version of the tale, there is nothing to be done there. We need to find our comrades that stayed in the despicable town and find out if they were able to elicit information pertaining to William Wallace. Perhaps Mr. Tanner drew upon his native American up-bringing and his talent with a knife to gather intelligence from Deputy McCabe." The last sentence was filled with venom, clearly showing Ezra's dislike for the spiteful man. Ezra was ready to string the man up, even if he had no proof that the man had done anything illegal. He knew, deep down, that McCabe had something to do with Buck's case.


It was after mid-day when the three men got to the hill that overlooked the town of Desperate. They stopped at the top of the hill, just as they had done four days before. The town had changed since their last viewing of the dying mining berg. There must have been a fire. Several buildings were mere blackened timbers, others showed signs of near misses.

"Hope our boys weren't involved in that," Josiah stated with some trepidation. "As it is, the sheriff probably found some cause to arrest those two."

"I would venture a guess that the sheriff and deputy both know the two of you." Donovon stated with a bit of scorn in his voice.

Both Josiah and Ezra sent glares in his direction. However, the two men from New Mexico relented. "Yeah, they do. What do you have in mind?" Josiah asked, puzzled.

Preening slightly, the governor's aide sat up a little taller. "Governor Routt didn't hire me for my abilities on horse back. Mr. Standish, you are very quick-witted when it comes to maneuvering people. I, though, am an expert in both tactical maneuvering and remaining unseen. I will ride into town, check in at the hotel, and find out precisely what has been going on during the past three days. If you two will remain here, I shall make myself useful."

Ezra's jaw dropped to his chest. The whiney twit just might be helpful after all. With a sweep of his hat, Ezra acquiesced to the man. "Mr. Donovon, be our guest. We shall be awaiting your return."

Josiah grinned his shit eating grin and nodded to the aide. "As Buck would say, damn man, get to it."

Both men continued to grin as Royce rode clumsily into Desperate.


The sun was beginning to set and the two of them had been watching for several hours for the governor's aide. Both Josiah and Ezra were hungry, their stomachs growling.

"That hideous toad! I'm going to die of starvation before he gets his tail back here. Mr. Sanchez, this is getting us nowhere. I vote that we make our way down to Desperate and first, find something to eat, second, find Mr. Donovon, and third, purchase a bottle of the town's best whiskey."

"Sounds like a plan, boys."

Both the gambler and the ex-preacher spun around, their hands going for their guns. Hearts pounding, they slowly raised their hands. Ace McCabe was grinning maliciously as he steadily held his gun at the two men from Four Corners. "Very carefully, toss your guns over to the side. Oh, Mr. Standish, the derringer up your sleeve, toss that too."

Ezra did as he was told, tossing both his sidearm and the small piece he kept concealed up his sleeve. He deeply regretted pulling the piece on the deputy the last time they were in his presence. Slowly, Josiah followed suit.

"Now, both of you, on your feet. Mount up and remember, I have the gun and I am a very good shot." McCabe never took his eye off of Josiah and Ezra as, after saddling their horses, they mounted. As they mounted, Ezra and Josiah caught each other's gaze. They had worked together for long enough that Josiah knew the gambler would try to weasel his way out of this sticky situation. Alas, it hadn't been that long ago that Josiah had accused Ezra of stealing money. The trust that had built slowly between the two men had become gravely strained that day and the ex-preacher couldn't be absolutely sure that his friend would include him in his plan, whatever that might be.

Before he was settled in his saddle, Josiah risked searching out Standish's eyes once again. The faintest of nods greeted the older man and, despite the ominous circumstances, Josiah felt his heart lighten and his brain began to work overtime. He had to be ready for Ezra's move.

The Southerner had made a quick, first encounter assessment of the man, that now held both Sanchez and himself at gun point. Ezra knew the man was a bully; a blowhard that took advantage of everyone that feared him. McCabe was vile but smart, and he had big aspirations for himself. Yes, the gambler had been correct in his early appraisal of the deputy. Now, however, he needed to figure out exactly what the despicable low-life's tells were and how he could provoke the man into making a grievous mistake. Plus, he had to make the man he trusted with his back be ready for whenever that chance came. He caught Josiah's eye. Sanchez nodded. The big man would be ready.

McCabe walk behind the two peacekeepers, his gun cocked and ready. "Slow, boys, we wouldn't want my finger to slip, now would we?" The two men in front of him slow their horses to a crawl and then stopped when they came to Ace's horse.

They all rode slowly down the hill and into the main section of town. With a wave of his gun, Ace sent word for Standish and Sanchez to halt by the jail and dismount. Reluctantly, Josiah and Ezra walked into the jail, then into a cell.

"Just what do you deem the charges to be, Deputy? We have not been in your fair city for several days now. And I would suggest that the damage suffered here occurred while we were in Denver. It is a real pity, Sir, that we have reputable witnesses that will attest to that very thing." Ezra stood by the cell door, his hands resting comfortably on the bars. He could piss off the Pope when he put his mind to it; Ace McCabe didn't stand a chance.

"Shut up!" Ace demanded, coming close enough to spit at the gambler. "And its Sheriff now. The way you two was slinking around up on the hill, I bet I could convince a jury in town here that you was the ones that shot and killed poor ol' Slim. Yeah, I bet I can get together a jury tomorrow and have you hung by noon. What ya got to say to that, smart ass?" Ace was grinning as he took one more step towards the cell door.

Like lightening, Ezra reached out, grabbing McCabe shirt front. He jerked the conceited oaf aggressively into the bars, opening a large cut on Ace's face. Just as quickly, he let go and stepped back. Ace shook his head, throwing blood across the floor.

"That's gonna be your last mistake, Standish!" With blood running down his face and into his eyes, he grabbed the keys and opened the door. He stormed into the cell, his vision tunneled in on the gambler. Before Ace got to Ezra, Josiah sidestepped the charging deputy, bringing his doubled fists down on the back of the man's head. McCabe fell at Ezra's feet.

"Well done, my friend. Shall we?" Ezra bowed slightly and Josiah marched out of the cell just ahead of his companion. Josiah turned the key in the lock and successfully secured the blowhard in his own cell.

"If you stand guard, my good man, I shall go procure us some food and see if I can't find Mr. Donovon," suggested the gambler. Josiah just laughed and nodded.


Brushing off his red coat sleeve, Ezra made his way down the street. There were very few citizens about, the gambler noted. It wasn't quite dark and still it seemed as if the boardwalks had already been rolled up. One elderly man, a torch in his hand, was firing up the street fires. Two teenage boys were sneaking a smoke in the alley he had just passed. And a dandified man in a citified suit was standing out in front of the hotel. Donovon waved and then, thinking better of acknowledging the peacekeeper, he dropped his hand and stuck it into his pocket.

Ezra changed course and walked straight up to the man who was now visibly cringing. "Where in the blue blazes have YOU been!" he sizzled. His right hand was fisted but he held back the punch he so desperately wanted to throw. Buck's life was at stake.

"I've been doing research, which is what I was sent here to do. It just took longer than I thought it would." Seeing that the angry man was controlling his urge for violence, he continued. "I have found out that most of the townsfolk believe that McCabe shot Sheriff Black. They are all of a mind that the new sheriff also killed the telegraph operator and burned down part of the town. However, they are all, to a man, afraid of McCabe. I did come across one man who helped with Miss Perkins' funeral, paid for by William Wallace, and he insists that Wallace had a hand in the murder. He was at several of the speeches that Wallace made while here and he tried to talk to Wallace after one of them. He saw Wallace get physically rough with the woman, demanding that she behave or else. He couldn't prove anything, so he didn't feel he should say anything at the trial. We need to figure out how to arrest McCabe and, subsequently, get him to talk."

Standish grinned, his lip curling just enough to show his gold tooth. "Well, Mr. Donovon," he purred in his slow Southern accent. "If that is all we need to do, our job is half done. As we speak, McCabe is ensconced in a cell at the jail with my friend keeping him company. I assure you, Sir, that once Mr. Larabee returns to this contemptible town, the deputy will divulge his secrets."

Chapter Twenty-Nine

They arrived at the top of the hill shortly after sunrise, coming to a halt a mere fifty foot from where Josiah and Ezra had been taken away by gunpoint the day before. Vin pulled out some jerky and Chris unwrapped two homemade rolls that Colleen Collins had sent along. They chatted amiably about not much, having already decided that it was too early to catch sight of the pompous deputy. When they finished their meager breakfast, Chris moved to unsaddle the horses and Vin settled in to watch the goings on from his perch high above Desperate.

Switching off with Chris whenever one of them got tired or bored, Vin had been keeping an eye on the town for about an hour. Neither of them had spotted Ace McCabe and they were beginning to get worried that the man had left Desperate. The two peacekeepers could hardly believe that anyone had gotten to Desperate from Canon City before them to warn the deputy but it was beginning to look that way. The Texan lowered the telescope and sighed.

"Figure this is a waste of time, Pard. It's goin' on ten and we ain't seen hide nor hair of the man. Ya know, after killin' Black and burnin' down half the town, he probably got his self shot or he took off runnin'. Let's head down there and find out!" Vin hated McCabe for more than what he had done to Buck. He had grown to respect Sheriff Black and shooting a man in the back just made his blood boil. Tanner was ready to skin the man alive!

Chris pondered on his best friend's proffer, knowing that Vin was probably right. However, he wanted the man alive. It was the only way to get Wallace and free Wilmington. He had screwed up once already when they had failed to capture Eli Joe. He had concluded to himself that shooting Eli Joe had been the only course of action at the time but he still remembered Vin's face when he realized his chances of clearing his name had died with the killer. He was not about to let his old friend, the man that had been by his side for half his life, suffer any longer in that prison.

Chris held out his hand. "Hand it over. We'll give it another thirty minutes or so." Receiving the glass, he made himself comfortable. He focused on the Sheriff's office.

Suddenly sitting up straight, he fumbled to readjust the scope. "What the hell!?"

Vin was at his side immediately, waiting his turn to see what had vexed his partner. "What is it?"

"I know it's impossible but take a look at the man sitting outside the Sheriff's office, acting like he owns the town," Chris shook his head in wonder and handed the telescope over.

Vin set the glass to his eye and zeroed in on the man sitting on the boardwalk outside the jail. He started laughing as he recognized the red jacket and the man wearing it. "That damn flimflammer! What the hell is he doin'?"

Quickly the two men from Four Corners saddled up and rode into town. Stopping in front of the jail, they both glared at the gambler who was happily grinning up at his two friends. Ezra finally stood, tipping his hat to a young woman who smiled at him as she passed by. He turned his attention back to Larabee and Tanner. "Gentlemen, welcome to Desperate."

Vin found his voice sooner than Chris did. "What are you doin' here? Josiah with you?"

"Why, I am fulfilling the task that was laid out to Mr. Sanchez and myself by our profound leader. And yes, Josiah is with me. Come in, see what we have been up to." He waited until his friends had joined him on the boardwalk and then led them into the jail and back to where the cells were. There, inside one of the cells, sat Ace McCabe.


"I can't believe how fast he caved. What in the world did you say to him, Chris?" Josiah had tried to get information from the demoralized deputy. He had failed to get even the time of day. Chris had gone back to the cell area and within two minutes, McCabe was singing his guts out.

Chris shook his head slightly. "I simply pointed out how sharp Tanner's knife was and what I was willing to do with it to get the truth out of him. Buck had already told me who had killed Louisa so I could tell real quick if he was bull shitting me."

Royce looked up from his steak. He felt he had been allowed to dine with the four peacekeepers but it had been worth it. Each man was so different from the others, yet they melded together to form a great, intimidating force. They would make a great political team if they so chose. "Wilmington told you Wallace killed his assistant? He actually saw him kill her?" he asked fervently.

Chris wasn't sure he liked the man but knew he was Buck's best shot at getting out of the mess he was in. "He told me Wallace killed Miss Perkins, don't know if he saw him do it though. He's really sick, took everything he had to get the name of the murderer out. I know Buck feels hangdogged for what happened but it wasn't his fault. Now, how are we gonna get to Wallace?"

"If Mr. Wilmington makes it, I want him available to testify right away. McCabe better tell the truth or he's looking at a death sentence. With everything falling apart, Wallace's muscle man just might see the error of his ways. So, I guess I should go see your friend and see if he can talk to me. Then, I'll go back to Denver and get Governor Routt to issue a warrant for Wallace. You needn't worry, we have men who will arrest him. The trial will have to come back here as this is where it occurred so this town better hurry and rebuild."

"It's gonna be quite the spectacle, that's for sure. So, Royce, you think Buck's got a good shot at gettin' out of prison?" Josiah wanted to let himself celebrate but until his friend walked out of that prison, he would be dubious.

"I can't guarantee it, but I would say that your friend is innocent and we plan on convicting the guilty man. I'll do all I can to make sure that happens." Royce held out his hand; Josiah took it and they shook. Before they released each other's hand, Chris placed his on top, followed by Vin and finally, Ezra.

"Tomorrow, we need to get back to Canon City. Josiah, can we leave you here with Vin to keep an eye on McCabe?" Chris knew the ex-preacher was close to Buck in a way none of the others were, but he needed two men he could trust to make sure none of Ace's buddies got an idea about breaking him out.

Sanchez lowered his head, let down. He had grown very attached to all of the other six but none of the others came to him in times of trouble like Buck did. He knew all about the scoundrel's past. The lack of a father and later, a mother, had left the handsome man searching for an advisor of sorts. Chris had filled that role for a long time. Now, however, the leader of the Seven had so many demons to fight, and new connections to be forged, he didn't have the time or patience to help Buck work through his own demons. Thus, it was that Josiah had taken on that role. The big man was humbled by the measure of regard that Buck showed for his opinion. He missed his friend.

However, the job at hand needed a strong man and that was Josiah. "Tell him I will be praying for him constantly and will see him soon."

"Thanks Preacher."

Chapter Thirty

A week later, Buck was strong enough to have visitors and, next to his fellow peacekeepers, the first was David Collins. The warden had waited impatiently to apologize for the almost disastrous treatment Buck had suffered while in his penitentiary. He also wanted to confirm that Governor Routt had officially commuted the ladies man's sentence and that he was free to leave Colorado as soon as he testified at William Wallace's trial. Both Ace McCabe and Angus Ferguson would also be testifying; Ferguson having seen the light about five minutes after Wallace was arrested by marshals of the state.

The next man to visit with Buck was Royce Donovon. The aide to the governor had been to the Collins' farm once before. Accompanied by Chris, Royce had asked a very ill Wilmington a few questions. Buck had answered briefly but truthfully and Donovon had left satisfied. Now he was back to get a full statement from a much improved free man. Royce spent about half an hour alone with the handsome ladies man. When he came out of the bedroom, he had a very satisfied grin on his face. He thanked all the men from Four Corners and promised the trial, to be held a week later, would be over soon.

With the knowledge that their brother would be returning, safe and somewhat sound, to the town they all called home, Standish, Jackson, and Tanner left Colorado. Chris, Josiah, and JD stayed to escort Buck back to Desperate and then home. As the week wound down, the five men gathered one last time around the dinner table in the Collins' home.

"I hope you don't mind, but I believe a prayer of thanks is called for," Colleen said when she had everything on the table and had taken her seat. The menfolk all nodded and she began. "Lord, we thank you for this food and this company. We thank you for keeping all of us safe during our time of trial. Thank you for aiding our patient," she grinned as she glanced at Buck, then continued, "back to health. Most of all, we are pleased to see justice done. We all know you had a hand in that, Lord. We so appreciate the new friends we have made and ask you to bless them and keep them safe. Amen."

"That was very well expressed, Ma'am. Sounded just like my mother," JD exclaimed and the others nodded their thanks.

"Amen, John Daniel. Mrs. Collins, I couldn't have said it any better myself," Josiah grinned his toothy smile.

"Dig in before it gets cold," Colleen blushed slightly.

"Colleen, you and James have not only saved my life but almost gave your lives and your home for me. I don't know how to ever repay you." There were tears in Buck's eyes as he tried to convey just how much he appreciated both James and Colleen.

"That goes for JD, the others, and myself too. If ever there is anything you need help with, just let us know and we'll be here. This big ol' sorry excuse of a friend wouldn't be here today without you two." Chris placed his hand on Buck's arm briefly, once again reaffirming that Buck was on the mend and would be riding home with him.

James stood, his water glass in his hand. "Here's to justice. And, Buck, I personally hope to never see you at work again."

A round of "here, here," was cheerfully expressed by all as they stood and toasted Buck's exceptional adventure.


The trial lasted two days. No one spoke on behalf of William Wallace. All his political allies ran the other way when they heard of his arrest. Ace McCabe testified and received a life sentence in David Collins' penitentiary. Ferguson told what he knew about Wallace and Louisa Perkins and was permitted to leave Colorado. Buck told his version of the story and was excused to leave.

As they walked out of the saloon that was being used as a court room, Chris turned to his old friend. "You ready to go home?"

Smiling, the big man nodded. "Got one thing to do first." The other three followed as Buck lead his horse down to the cemetery. He found the headstone that had been placed on Louisa's grave. He stood there quietly for several minutes, his head bowed.

Motioning for JD and Josiah to wait, Chris made his way to Buck's side. "It wasn't your fault."

Turning his head slightly to look into his brother's eyes, Buck answered, "Her death wasn't, I know that. The baby, though, I feel real bad about that. If I hadn't a come here, they both would still be alive."

"Knowin' you like I do, you must'a told her that she shouldn't do what she did."

"That night, she said she had made a big mistake, leavin' me. She told me the baby was Wallace's. I tried to convince her that I didn't care, I'd be a good father to her child. Guess I kinda felt like that baby could'a been me. Long time ago, my ma had the same decision to make."

Chris put his arm around his long time sidekick and whispered, "I sure am glad she made the right decision, Pard."

Buck grinned forlornly. "Me too. Louisa told me Wallace was married and that his wife couldn't have children so he was real anxious to hold on to hers. She said he would never leave us be until he got his hands on the baby. When I woke up the next morning, I found a note. She wrote that she was taking care of things. Huh, she should'a just rode out with me. Instead, she killed the baby and had to go tell Wallace what she did. I guess he was waitin' 'til I left, to go in and murder her for what she did."

"Guess she did love ya if she was willin' to do that for you. Sorry I was so hard on ya, Stud." Chris dropped his arm from Buck's shoulder. "How about we join the others and head on home?"

Buck put his hand on the headstone, saying his final good bye. "Home sounds pretty good right about now. Let's ride."


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